2019 polls under threat from National Assembly, presidency rift
• Budget implementation stalls as rework begins
The renewed face-off between President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly over who calls the shot on budget matters could jeopardise the conduct of next year’s general elections. Specifically, legislative approval of budget proposals for the conduct of next year’s election by the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) is uncertain.
A member of the Senate Appropriation Committee and Chairman of its Committee on Banking, Insurance and Other Financial Institutions, Rafiu Ibrahim (APC, Kwara South), queried the president’s motive.
The executive cannot, at this time, ask that money for key capital projects be converted for elections, he said. “That is not planning. Since we held the last poll, the next election time had been fixed. Since we did the last election, we already knew when we must do the next election, as the Electoral Act stipulates. We already knew that a new government would be inaugurated on May 29, 2019.”
One of the three Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senators from Bayelsa State, on condition of anonymity, said: “I don’t want to comment on it. Everybody knows that there would be general elections in 2019 and yet they failed to make provisions for the elections in the 2018 budget. Why did they not make provision for it then? I believe they are up to something. But we are watching very closely. For now, I will not want to talk about it.”
In a separate interview, chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, Mathew Urhoghide (PDP, Edo South), pointed out that the president does not have the final say on budget matters.
According to him, though Buhari has the constitutional right to request for it, the National Assembly must consider where the virement would be done before giving its approval. “If there is going to be contention over the appropriateness of having to move something that is very important to another one that the president considers more important, there is going to be a clash,” he said.
Another senator, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) from the South West, said: “There must be other ways to fund the elections than reducing what the National Assembly budgeted for projects. We all know the importance of those projects. Most are infrastructural in nature and spending on them will create employment and enhance the growth of our economy.”
In the proposal submitted to them last week, the president had asked the lawmakers to divert part of the N578 billion for constituency projects they ‘inserted’ into the 2018 budget into funds for the polls.
In a letter read by Senate President Bukola Saraki to senators last Tuesday, Buhari asked that the sum of N228,854 billion be vired or converted for the purpose of funding the election and N64,749 billion critical projects cut off by the National Assembly.
The proposal, however, has attracted serious opposition from members of the National Assembly, many of whom have threatened not just to retain the projects but also ensure they are properly executed.
They contended that funds for the elections should be sourced elsewhere without jeopardising projects that impact positively on the welfare of the electorates. Many noted that the legislature, and not the presidency, reserves the power to decide what should be spent on the election.
They hinged their views on Section 80(4) of the constitution, which states that no money shall be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund or any other fund for spending, except in a manner prescribed by the National Assembly. According to the lawmakers, the president is biased against the projects and merely seeks an opportunity to frustrate them.
The National Assembly will proceed on a long vacation this week and may not resume until the end of September 2018, a development that is expected to further delay consideration of the elections budget.
More than this, the 2018 budget could suffer poor execution due to late implementation.
Unlike the 2017 spending plan when the Federal Ministry of Finance promptly released funds for implementation, The Guardian has learned from dependable sources at the former and the Budget Office of the Federation that 2018 paints a dismal picture.
This is because the Presidency and the National Assembly have been forced to return to the drawing board to rework and agree on the specifics of the budget before determining what would be funded.
At the Budget Office, an aide to the director-general, Ben Akabueze, told The Guardian on condition of anonymity: “He (Akabueze) and other top members of the economic team are locked up in an important meeting, trying to sort out things with the members of the National Assembly on the budget confusion, to know what aspects will be financed. I don’t know how far this is going to take. But it must be straightened out first before any releases must be done, to avoid going foul of the law.”
She explained that the reworking of the budget followed the president’s request to the National Assembly to vire funds from allegedly inserted projects and that the move was necessary to avoid mix-ups in subsequent budgets defence by ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).
A check at the Federal Ministry of Finance on Thursday confirmed that no releases had so far been made more than one month after the budget was assented to by Buhari.
Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun and Accountant General of the Federation Ahmed Idris turned down calls made to them for clarification on the issue.
Adeosun’s Special Adviser on Communications, Oluyinka Akintunde, said the National Economic Council (NEC), the country’s highest economic advisory meeting headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, was resolving the matter.
On the reworking of the budget, James Akpandem, the Special Adviser to the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Udoma Udo Udoma, said: “I am not aware of what you are talking about. All of us are aware that while performing the budget signing ceremony last month, Mr. President told the whole world that the National Assembly members inserted projects alien to the executive’s proposal and that he would write them to readjust it. And this was what he just did when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) brought its budget for the 2019 elections. Has just simply told them to vire funds from some of those projects to cater for INEC’s request. Does this require a reworking of the budget?”